Kill Your Darlings, but Write Them First

Kill Your Darlings, but Write Them First
July 12, 2016 Dan Wunderlich

There are few things I find more frustrating as a blogger than unscheduling a post. When it is written, the accompanying images have been prepared, the mass of social messages have been scheduled, and the to-do list is checked off, the last thing I want to do is abandon the post.

It feels like failure. It feels like a waste of time. It feels like I must have missed the hundreds of signs telling me to turn around.

No doubt, you have had this feeling too. It can be as small as a section within a sermon that isn’t working out, as big as a message series that isn’t right for your community at this time, or as pressing as a sermon you toss out late on Saturday.

We try really hard to catch bad or underdeveloped ideas before too much time is sunk into them, but sometimes things fall through the cracks. My latest one involved trying to explore the connections between an upcoming lectionary Scripture and a form of racism, all while using the reality show Survivor as the overarching illustration that would help everything make sense.

Yes, it was as bad as it sounds. Survivor, while well known, just finished its 32nd season. Its shelf life as a relevant cultural touchpoint has long passed. Even more importantly, it lacks the gravity to illustrate the point I was trying to make about a subject like racism. The whole thing was way out of balance and inappropriate.

And speaking of lacking, while I feel like I had a good point to make, it was mostly me trying to reframe a handful of thoughts I had absorbed from some really wise people of color whom I respect and follow on Twitter. The argument in the post was far from fully-formed and ultimately would have been a disservice to their ideas.

But I fought it. This could work — I just have to figure it out. So, I rewrote it… 10 times. I let it sit for a week and rewrote it again. By this point, if I wanted to get the post up before the Scripture came around in the lectionary, it was now or never. So, I gave it another pass, told myself it would be fine, and proceeded to put in the all the extra work that transforms a draft into a finished, scheduled, and promoted post.

The week before a post goes live, my to-do list reminds me to give it one more read. When I made that final pass, I had that sinking feeling — this will not work.

And so I unscheduled it. I deleted the Tweets and the Facebook posts. And all of that work seemed to suddenly amount to a very big waste of time.

There is a common adage in writing, which can apply to preaching as well: kill your darlings. Be ruthless and willing to cut anything — especially the ideas, passages, turns of phrase, illustrations, or even full works that you love but just won’t do what you need them to do.

Over the years, this idea has been quoted by or attributed to everyone from William Faulkner to G. K. Chesterton to Stephen King. An editor at Slate did a little research, and the oldest version he could find came from a Cambridge lecture called “On Style” by Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1914. The relevant passage reads:

“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

What I find interesting about this potentially original formulation of the phrase is that the lecturer specifically says to obey the impulse to write your darling — and do it whole-heartedly.

Work with it. Shape it. Get it out. Write it down. But then, and only then, if it is not working, delete it.

As I reflect on my doomed Survivor/Scripture/racism post (geez- what was I thinking?!), I realize that I learned a lot. It taught me about my own voice, perspective, and ideas. It challenged me to think deeply about others’ voices, perspectives, and ideas. It caused me to examine my criteria when crafting illustrations. It taught me that looming deadlines can fuel the inner voice that says, “even though this feels wrong, it will be fine.”

But I had to chase it. That’s how creativity works. It’s about making connections. The more creative something seems, the more unique the connection likely is. Unique connections happen through trying out ideas — especially ideas that seem like they won’t work. And, as a creative person, when I don’t try out an idea or a connection, it can sit in the back of my mind and bug me.

For the sake of clarity, purpose, and even stewardship of the time and attention that people will give our work, we must kill our darlings. But just because you delete something, unschedule something, or leave it unsaid does not mean it was a waste of time. By all means, create your darlings, giving them the time and space to exist and do what they need to do in and through you.

Your future work will be better because of them.

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